Encountering a legend

She was there when I walked in to do a reading at A Great Good Place for Books (which is indeed a great good place): a tall, reed-thin woman with a still-beautiful face that radiated strength.

“I’m Pat,” she said.

I shook her hand and thanked her for coming, then kept walking to the back of the bookstore to finish up some miscellaneous details. While walking, my brain clicked in.  I turned around and walked back.

“You’re PAT MAGINNIS?”

She smiled. She was indeed.

Pat Maginnis’ story is part of my new book, Perilous Times: An inside look at abortion before – and after – Roe v Wade. It’s a story too long to tell again here, but in brief: In the 1960s, if you were pregnant and desperate in Chicago you looked for Jane. If you were in California, you looked for Pat Maginnis. She was a one-woman Planned Parenthood/ NARAL Pro-Choice/ TrustWomen force, when there were few forces to protect the lives of women with unintended pregnancies.

I had last talked with Pat three years ago, when working on Perilous Times; she was aging (something we both continue to do) and in poor health. I had lost track of her, and recent efforts to find her led nowhere. But here she was.

There are legends in our time. Pat will be at the Commonwealth Club for a panel discussion on Thursday the 17th — not on the panel, but she’s planning to be there. She’s going to make my day twice in the same week.ResizedImage_1381901735267

Life begins… when? Come talk about it

 

Life begins… at conception? at birth? somewhere in between?

It’s not a question anyone can answer with absolute certainty, or a question likely ever to be agreed upon by everyone currently alive. But it’s a question many philosophers, theologians and — not always happily — politicians have been debating recently. And it’s a question sure to come up at the Commonwealth Club program Women at Risk: What’s Ahead For Reproductive Rights October 17th in San Francisco.

English: *Description: Scotty McLennan Author ...
31 December 2006 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

Scotty McLennan, the Dean for Religious Life at Stanford University (and model for Doonesbury‘s Dude of God) will be one of four panelists tackling this and other thorny — but pertinent — issues during the hour-long event. Here’s a bit of what McLennan has to say, excerpted from Perilous Times: An inside look at abortion before – and after – Roe v Wade:

“I’ll never forget the sight of each of my children emerging into the world blue and lifeless, being struck on the back by the doctor, taking their first breath, and becoming ruddy-colored as they began crying their way into life.” Those images, and a biblical reference to the “breath of life,” reinforce McLennan’s belief that “the Supreme Court got it right” in ruling that decisions about abortion should be left to the woman and her physician until the fetus might indeed be able to survive outside the womb.

McLennan also believes, as do I, that abortion should be safe, legal and rare.

It’s a critical issue a long way from being solved, either by Roe v Wade, or by those of us who are pro-choice, or by those who would ban abortion entirely in the belief that banning it would somehow make unwanted pregnancies never happen.

How about you? If you’re going to be in the San Francisco Bay Area on October 17th, join us at the Commonwealth Club. It’s going to be informative, engaging, useful — and a lively time.

Underground abortionists? Today? Believe it.

The back alley abortionist of pre-Roe days came in all types: men, women, trained, untrained, compassionate or just in it for the money. They existed, all of them, because women desperate to end unwanted pregnancies sought them out. In almost every case the woman and the abortionist had little or no contact either before or after the event, but in many cases — including my own — there was a strange sense of gratitude to someone who managed to give you your life back. In countless other cases the woman died herself, because these were dangerous procedures in perilous times.

And they’re back.

Not in the same form, probably not in anywhere near the same number as was the case before Roe v Wade. But the Underground Abortionist is here. Loss of access to safe and legal abortion, thanks to layers of state restrictions, is causing women with unplanned pregnancies to seek out ways to end those pregnancies. They are, by and large, women without money or resources, very often women with more children already than they can care for. Some of them are just frightened children with nowhere to turn — abused by a family member or victimized in any of a million ways.

Enter the underground abortionist. Today’s illegal abortion provider is most often a drug dealer who knows where to get misoprostol and mifepristone, the drugs needed to end a pregnancy. The potential dangers are different from the assortment of dangerous methods used by illegal abortionists before 1973, but they surely exist: if the drugs are not pure, if they are taken in the wrong dosages, any number of conditions can make today’s illegal abortion as dangerous as those in days of old.

But happily for some women who are denied safe abortions today, there are compassionate other women trying hard to help. One wrote about her work on Jezebel and subsequently participated in a fascinating interview with Robin Marty of RH Reality Check. I hope you’ll read the entire piece.

This underground abortionist is motivated by what she hears, through emails, from women with unplanned pregnancies: “Desperate, scared, broke women write to her, wanting to terminate a pregnancy without turning to sharp instruments, unknown drugs, or old wives’ tales,” Marty explains. So she does her best to instruct them on proper use, and sends the drugs.

Is this any way to settle the critical, complex issue of unwanted pregnancy? At this point, for poor women in much of the U.S., it’s all there is.

The underground abortionist says, in this eye-opening interview, much with which I heartily agree. Particularly in these closing lines, when Marty poses hypothetical questions the interviewee might be asked:

“I think “pro-life” and pro-choice activists don’t talk enough to each other. I think we can actually sometimes find unusual common ground. I think that while a lot of the people at the top of the pro-life movement are cynical and misogynistic, a lot of the pro-life rank-and-file are people who are honestly well-intentioned and have been told a lot of lies.”

In other words – Can We Talk?

Can we talk? Can we afford not to?

Family Planning changes lives
Family Planning changes lives (Photo credit: The White Ribbon Alliance for Safe Motherhood)

A thoughtful reader named Lydia left a comment in response to my blog (just below) giving thanks for Mark Ruffalo and his support for reproductive rights. If you’re not into reading comments, here is Lydia’s in full:

So, are you saying that killing your unborn child was a better option than allowing the child to live-maybe to be welcomed into another family’s life, and your secrecy was better than taking action to hold the rapist accountable for what he did? I have had an unwanted pregnancy, too, and as horrified and hopeless as I felt, I allowed my child to live and I have no regrets. Abortion is never the right choice, but I know it sometimes feels like the only choice. That is why women need to pick up the phone and call a crisis pregnancy counselor. Abortion is like suicide. It is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.

If we’re going to talk, we have to listen. In trying to listen to Lydia I hear a couple of points of similarity and/or agreement. She and I each struggled with how to deal with an unwanted pregnancy (hers I suspect much later than mine in 1956.) We both appreciate strong & welcoming families. We both believe women need access to a pregnancy center which might offer help. Maybe we can build on these points. And try to work through some disagreements.

We need to set aside the business of holding the rapist accountable, at least in my case. In 1956, workplace rape was without recourse. I would have been laughed out of town — after destroying the fabric of several families, probably not including his. Today, women often fail to prosecute acquaintances who don’t hear No. Should they be required to prosecute, to relive painful experiences in the name of public justice? I’m not sure. Perhaps they deserve the right to make that decision for themselves, with legal advice if they choose and with the support of loved ones. Should they be required to carry the fetus that results from a painful experience for nine months in hopes that it might — might — be welcomed into another family? I don’t think so. I think they should have the right to choose otherwise, with the support of physicians and loved ones. I think no two such experiences are identical, so blanket dictates seem unwise.

Neither Lydia nor I have regrets about the course of action we chose. We differ on definitions. Lydia equates fetus with child, presumably because she believes life begins at conception. I respect the religions that teach this doctrine. I strongly support their right to protect the life of any fetus they happen to have, wanted or not. I just do not share the same belief about life’s beginnings. My own deeply held Christian beliefs see the beginning of life somewhat later on. But I think neither my religion nor Lydia’s has the right to tell other women — Jews, Muslims, Buddhists or nonbelievers — what they may or may not do with their bodies.

Lydia sees abortion as never the right choice. I see it as complex and personal, but sometimes the right choice. Mother Nature often sees it as the right choice when miscarriage happens. No one but the woman herself can know about her fetus, her body, her circumstances, her life, so I think it’s improper for me to presume to tell her what she must do. Often, counseling can help.

Which brings us to the crisis pregnancy center. Despite the fact that women have reported hearing untruths and accusations at crisis pregnancy centers, I believe many of them offer compassionate counseling and useful information. My greatly beloved daughter-in-law works at a pregnancy crisis center, and I know my daughter-in-law to be honest, kind-hearted and truthful. I support the right of pregnancy crisis centers to thrive and prosper although I do not support their promotion of unscientific theories. If we can talk, can we consider the possibility that pregnancy crisis centers might coexist with regular reproductive health centers? The latter, after all, offer many, many services unavailable elsewhere: information and testing about STDs; contraception and family planning services; pregnancy testing and counseling — even, in some of them, abortion. In that latter case, abortion is nearly always a tiny percentage of total services. Where they are being driven out of business, all of those services disappear and the results are tragic for countless men, women, boys and girls.

I can absolutely guarantee that when abortion is unavailable women suffer and die. I don’t think those on either side want women to suffer and die. Those on both sides want healthy women, few-as-possible abortions, healthy families.

What do you think, Lydia, is there any hope for conversation?

The power of conversation

White dove with olive branch
White dove with olive branch (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Courteous conversations between bitter enemies? One group violently opposing the issues of another — three or four on each side quietly sitting down to talk things over?

It happens.

Often, these days, it happens thanks to the Public Conversations Project, or to local conflict resolution nonprofits like San Francisco’s Community Boards. Still, it’s hard to believe.

I recently participated in a teleconference with Joan Blades, however, and Blades can make you a believer. With her husband Wes Boyd, Blades founded MoveOn.org in 1987. That was the year everybody said, “Yeah, it’ll never go anywhere…” More recently she started MomsRising. No organizational structure, no venture capital, but as its website explains, just “a handful of women (who) came together, and then that handful became hundreds, the hundreds became thousands, and through friends telling friends, MomsRising is now more than a million members strong and growing.”

All of which makes it difficult to tell Blades that one or two people can’t get together and make a difference. I asked if she thought any sort of reconciliation could ever happen with reproductive rights, given the polarization, emotionalism and widespread misinformation that separates the pro-choice and anti-abortion forces.

Actually, Blades replied, it did. “I was not a part of it. But at the height of the violence against abortion providers in the 1990s, a group of pro-choice leaders sat down with anti-abortion leaders in an attempt to stop the violence. After that, the level of violence was reduced.” A 2009 Huffington Post blog by Mary Jacksteit explains how that went. Jacksteit is currently involved with LivingRoomConversations.org, which says on its home page: “We need to have collaborative solutions. Adversarial solutions are not working.”

Small groups, courteous conversations, two or three people on one side listening to two or three people on another — these may not change any minds, or change the world tomorrow.  But don’t tell Joan Blades or Wes Boyd or Mary Jaksteit it’s not worth trying.

And for that matter, I plan to keep trying myself.

 

Without abortion rights, poor women suffer

There are no winners when abortion is criminalized — unless you count conservative politicians and embryos. But there are losers.

Local public radio station KQED broadcasted an interesting hour of commentary on abortion rights August 7, one of its regular morning Forum shows. This one was hosted by Scott Shafer, and included Amy Everitt, state director for NARAL Pro-Choice CA speaking for choice and lawyer Jennifer Popick for the anti view.

The show included most of the usual arguments pro and con abortion rights, but one caller raised the issue that ought to be prominent in every news report: it’s poor women who suffer and die when abortion rights are denied. The caller pointed out that well-off women can simply go somewhere else for a safe procedure; women without money or resources have no option but to make desperate and often dangerous attempts to end an unintended, unwanted pregnancy.

I wanted to call in to read a few stories, put a few faces (like my own) on women yesterday and today without reproductive choice, but think it would be hard to do in just an hour.

Retired Presbyterian minister and former theological seminary president Laird Stuart, put it this way after reading Perilous Times: “If you doubt there is a war on women or a war on the poor, listen to the men and women, the boys and girls in this book.”

Hearing Wendy’s voice – & others

Mandatory pre-abortion waiting period laws in ...
Mandatory pre-abortion waiting period laws in the United States of America. Mainland U.S. edited from a 600px map by Jared Benedict at Libre Map Project and non-continental states from http://www.uscourts.gov/images/CircuitMapoutlined.eps by the United States Department of Justice. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Gail Collins, in her traditionally precise prose, wound up a recent column on Wendy Davis‘ now historic filibuster in the Texas legislature thusly:

A few years back, Davis told me about an incident during a debate when she had asked a veteran Republican a question about a pending bill. Dodging her query, he said: “I have trouble hearing women’s voices.”

“I guess they can hear her now.”

Amen.

There’s something about hearing women’s voices that can make men, especially men who would like to tell women what they can or cannot do with their own bodies, too uncomfortable to listen.

In one poignant story included in my new book Perilous Times: An inside look at abortion before – and after – Roe v Wade (plug intended) Karen Mulhauser tells of the time when she testified before a congressional committee about being brutally raped in her home. She was trying to make the point that had a pregnancy resulted she would not have wanted it to continue. But Congressman Ed Patten (who died at 89 in 1994, after serving 17 years in Congress) “appeared to be asleep.” Representative Silvio Conte (1921-1991; then a Republican from Massachusetts) turned his swivel chair away from her to face the wall.  Mulhauser, former head of NARAL Pro-Choice and current chair of Women’s Information Network, was angered — but not silenced.

Some voices, those of women without resources who are facing unwanted pregnancies in states where safe abortion is de facto impossible, are going unheard. And those women are doing desperate things.

But it is for them that Wendy Davis, and Karen Mulhauser, and every woman and man who believes in a woman’s right to choose, is raising her own voice of encouragement and support. And those voices will be heard.

 

Eleanor Roosevelt on reproductive rights

Eleanor Roosevelt with Fala
Eleanor Roosevelt with Fala  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I love channeling Eleanor Roosevelt.

Recently the Wall Street Journal ran a letter of mine about an encounter with the great and gracious lady in 1953. It was fun recalling that event, but even more fun was hearing from my friend Milt Moskowitz who shared a story of his own:

“In 1962 I was working at what was then the largest market research firm in the country, Alfred Politz Research, founded and run by an alcoholic German, Alfred Politz, who was a serial womanizer.  Knowing my politics to be on the left side of the spectrum, he frequently berated me about liberals.  And one of his prime examples was Eleanor Roosevelt, who had a syndicated column, My Day.  She was a typical liberal, he said, afraid to come out for abortion rights for fear of irritating the Catholic church. “You don’t know that,” I said.  I then wrote a letter to Eleanor, asking if she had the time for an interview.  She replied that she did and soon I found myself having tea with her in her brownstone on the East Side of Manhattan.  I told her what my boss had said, and then she said that she was a fervent supporter of abortion rights for women.  When I returned to work, I relayed this information to Alfred, who scoffed, saying she would never go public with this support.  Well, a week later, the “My Day” column carried Eleanor’s eloquent support for abortion rights. I bought a dozen copies of that edition and dumped them on Alfred’s desk.  For one of the first times in his life, he was speechless.  “I was delighted that he had brought it up since it enabled me to meet a gentle lady with a very strong spine.”

Mrs. Roosevelt’s “My Day” columns were among the first things I read in the morning papers; they were never timid. I don’t remember this one — having pushed the whole issue of abortion far down into the depths of my psyche — but I’m not surprised. Would that her calm, strong voice were here to speak today.